Ramadan 2014, age twenty. I, a freshly minted first-year student, am busy revising my notes for a physiology seminar. It is a sunny, glorious day, and I reach for a water bottle in my backpack. As I take a deep gulp, the person next to me gives me an odd look. “You’re Muslim, aren’t you?” he asks. “I have a Pakistani friend, and he won’t even have intercourse with his girlfriend at Ramadan.”
Plot twist: I am a Middle Eastern woman in Germany who dared to drink water before sundown.
“Not really,” I stutter, not quite sure how to reply. “I’m … nothing, I guess.”
As someone born into a Sunni Muslim family in a country with a Muslim majority (labeling our countries as monolithic Islamic states leads to the erasure of Middle Easterners of other faiths), Islam has always been the backdrop of my life. Before I could read or write, I memorized the rise and fall of the imam’s voice at nightfall. I marveled at the pretty, golden cover of my mother’s Qur’an, which she would leave under my pillow when I was sick. I was vaguely aware of the omniscient presence of Allah, or God, but never quite knew what that was supposed to mean.
Still, although we always celebrated religious holidays and followed religious rites for the deceased, my family was not exactly religious. As a result of my family’s ambiguity, I muddled through my religious identity without quite knowing where I belonged. Questions about our religious indifference were annually brought to the forefront of my mind at Ramadan, as TV shows depicted happy families feasting at sundown.
Ramadan 2004, age ten. I vividly remember watching my mother fast for the first time. I remember her nodding off at noon, her face turning pale after a few days. I remember her disappointment as she gave up after a week, much to the relief of my grandparents. I remember her, employed at an American company, tell me how she was pressurized to drink wine at a work outing. When the environment you grow up in is both deeply religious and hostile to any religious practices, it creates a sense of insecurity.
Ramadan 2007, age thirteen. I’m in the midst of a deeply spiritual phase of my life. For the first and last time in my life, I’m gripped with the desire to fast. However, I don’t dare ask my parents for permission, as I can already see the look of horror on my father’s face. Who on earth must I be spending time with? Could it be that my religious studies teacher is an extremist? Therefore, in my thirteen-year-old naivety, I compromise and secretly abstain from water from sunrise till sundown.
Ramadan 2013, age nineteen. Immersed in my studies and busy applying for university, I barely notice Ramadan pass. My highly competitive high school has turned me into a student who does physics homework in religious studies class. Amidst the so-called war against ‘radical’ Islam, my family distances itself from any religious ties there might have been left. As I commence my studies in Europe far away from home, I find myself scrambling to prove myself to a white, intimidating majority. I start eating pork and nursing a glass of wine at parties, even though I barely finish it. As I see people share ‘Islam is responsible for recent attacks!’ articles, I find myself labeling myself as ‘nothing’.
Ramadan 2016, age twenty-two. Here I am, having finally realized that the religious indifference of my family was not a result of their own beliefs, but a desire to conform to the West. In my haste to be accepted in a hostile environment, I emulated my family and turned my back on my faith. I acted not out of my own wishes and beliefs, but out of defiance.
Now, as Ramadan is upon us yet again, I am left with a feeling of emptiness and regret. I mourn for the loss of the thirteen-year-old, who couldn’t express her desire to practice her religion. I mourn for the potential she had deep in her heart. I wonder who she might have become, allowed the chance to flourish. I regret the years spent denying my faith, unwilling to let my grandmother utter a prayer for my health as she hugged me goodbye. I wonder how many brothers and sisters are similarly lost, trapped between their family, community and faith. I try to count our ranks, the silent victims of the war against our religion, and give up in desperation.
As an agnostic Muslim woman who still whispers a few, broken prayers from her childhood, I hope my siblings of faith will accept my sincere well wishes. May your Ramadan be full of joy, reconciliation, spiritual cleansing and peace. May we all overcome our differences and cherish our faith, no matter how much our practices may differ. I love you, I see you, I stand in solidarity with you. Your faith is valid, no matter how lost you may feel today. Peace.